Humanism Not Atheism

Four HorsemenI came upon a short video conversation from a couple of years ago between Andrew Brown and Daniel Dennett. They are both atheists. But Dennett is a New Atheist and Brown is what I’ve always called an old atheist. This is what I am too. I’m just not interested in converting anyone. I don’t believe in God in the same way that I don’t believe in fairies. But I don’t especially care that other people do believe in fairies. Where religion becomes dangerous is where it becomes political. And as we know from the history of the anti-choice movement in this country, the religion isn’t really what’s important. It’s just a cultural signifier. The politics come first and the religion is used to justify those politics.

But I learned this New Atheist term for my kind of belief: “atheist but.” This is based upon people like me saying, “I’m an atheist, but I don’t care if other people believe in God.” In the conversation, Dennett is highly presumptuous. He claims that such atheists are saying that the “little people” need the fantasy of God and so should be allowed to have it. Brown counters that this is not his position. Among his Christian friends, everyone knows the arguments for and against God and there is no reason to argue about it.

Dennett then gets into a blatantly bigoted tangent about how good churches do harm by giving cover for the bad churches. Brown harmmers him on the issue by turning it around: does that mean that good atheists are worse than bad atheists because the good atheists give the bad atheists ideological cover? I think it is better to think about it in terms of race. Do African Americans who feed the poor do harm by making it seem like there aren’t African American murderers? What’s most offensive about Dennett’s statement is that he implicitly equates all religions: a Christian is a Muslim is a Jain. This is the kind of ignorant hubris that so defines the New Atheist movement.

Brown wrote an article about the conversation, I’m an Atheist but… I Won’t Try to Deconvert Anyone. And in it, he gets right to the heart of this issue of hubris. Even Richard Dawkins admits when it comes right down to it, he is an agnostic. He doesn’t know that God doesn’t exist. But he is as certain of it as he is of anything. I suspect that Dennett believes the same thing. So why the utter hostility toward religious people?

If atheists are against anyone, it should be those who wish to push their religious doctrine onto our secular society. There certainly are a lot of religious people who want to do just that. But my experience is that most religious people do not want to do this. My main interactions with religious people are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they don’t even believe in voting. I’m really pleased about that! I fear the active aggression of the New Atheists are most likely to make the religious loons more active politically. I don’t think this is offset by more people admitting to their religious doubts — which is all that I think is happening with the growing number of “nones.”

But it isn’t just about organized religion. As I’ve discussed before, there are a lot of New Atheists who are like Tracie Harris. They think that the tepid thinking of New Age people act as some kind of a threat to society. But does it? Isn’t such intolerance toward anyone who isn’t an atheist just another form of tribalism? Whether someone believes in Allah or Yahweh or the Flying Spaghetti Monster doesn’t matter to me. I’m interested in more important matters.

Ultimately, I am a humanist. To me, that implies atheism. It also implies allowing others what I consider their minor delusions. But the interesting thing is that I know “spiritual” and even Christian people who are actually humanist. Most of the Sermon on the Mount is humanist. And I know atheists who are most clearly not humanists. If I’m going to get tribal, I’m going to do it with humanism, not atheism. Last weekend, Ted McLaughlin published some data on religion. And it showed that only 33% of Americans look to religion on issues of right and wrong. That’s in a nation that is roughly 75% Christian. Clearly there are a lot of “religious” Americans who aren’t very religious.

As a tribal identification, atheism is uninspiring. And it isn’t surprising that one of the biggest outgrowths of the New Atheist movement has been Islamophobia. Humanism leads us in a better direction.

The Morality of Our Selective Interests

Martin LongmanThe worst terrorist attack this year did not happen in Paris on Friday, despite the fact that it was a horrific incident. Yet, though 129 people have been confirmed dead by French authorities — and presumably more will die in the coming days and weeks from the wounds they suffered — the Paris attacks don’t even come close to being the worst terrorist incident this year. It only seems like the worst.

However, in January of this year, over a four day period, a terrorist organization likely slaughtered 2,000 people (no precise count was ever taken), dwarfing the casualties in Paris, and, to be honest, every other terrorist attack that happened in the world this year…

We held no candlelight vigils or church services for the victims of Boko Haram. Our college and professional athletes did not enter our sporting arenas before their games this weekend (or any weekend) carrying the flag of Lebanon to honor the victims of Beirut, as they did with the French tricolor. No one claimed to stand in solidarity with the victims of those massacres. No, their deaths did not arouse in us that same level of anguish and outrage, as did the victims in Paris. The US media certainly spent far less time covering those tragedies, and indeed far less time collectively covering all the other terror attacks worldwide, than it spent this past weekend with its round the clock attention to the events in Paris.

I leave it to you to consider what that means about our society and its moral values.

—Steven D
The Worst Terrorist Attack This Year

Why Economic Growth Won’t Save the Poor

Federal ReserveI want to talk about productivity and inflation. This is partly just to nail down the issue for me. But also, I think I talk about this stuff in a way that assumes a knowledge that many people don’t have. Most people think of inflation as “printing money.” By this way of thinking, the economy is worth a certain amount and if there is more cash, then it is worth less. This isn’t true because money is a medium of exchange, not a reflection of the value of the economy — at least not directly.

Let’s consider an example. Imagine a world in which all workers and capitalists are paid according to their value. In this case, we assume we have no inflation. Now if one set of workers gets a raise, it will make the cost of whatever they are making go up. This is inflation. But if productivity went up at the same rate, this would not be inflationary. The workers would be paid, say, 3% more, but they would be producing 3% more stuff.

We don’t have such an economy. In our economy, largely because of governmental policy, capitalists get far more money than they deserve and workers less. Workers find themselves in a monopsony. If they can form unions or otherwise push back against this, it is possible that they will get more money by taking away some of the undeserved profits of the capitalists. In this case, workers can get a raise without causing inflation.

But at this point, the Fed should error on the side of creating jobs and not worry about inflation.

So we end up with inflation just in the case where workers get pay increases that, in an economic sense, they don’t deserve. (Obviously, this is not just about workers. If the price of oil goes up, it will cause inflation, for example.) The point I want to get across here is that inflation is not something we need to worry about in the modern American economy. For the last 40 years, workers have seen their wages stagnate even as productivity has continued to go up.

Given my simplistic story of inflation here, we should have seen deflation. But, of course, we haven’t. And that is because overall “wages” (wages and profits) have gone up at the rate of productivity. It is just that with tax laws and anti-union policies, the vast majority of the fruits of that productivity gain has gone to the capitalists. This has resulted in a huge increase in inequality.

Federal Reserve Building

And this brings us to the Federal Reserve. They are the ones who “print money.” And they are the ones who are hyper-concerned about inflation. Their biggest concern is that wages are going to start rising and this will cause inflation. That’s a valid concern. But it is only a concern because the capitalists will insist upon keeping their undeserved profits. There would be no inflation if increased worker wages came at the expense of overly generous business profits. But obviously, this is not something that the Fed has power over.

But at this point, the Fed should error on the side of creating jobs and not worry about inflation. Jobs help workers and inflation hurts the rich. But what the Fed means when it talks about raising interest rates to stop inflation is that it is going to put millions of people out of work and put even more pressure to keep wages low on those who have a job.

So we have an economy where workers are in a double bind. They aren’t making as much as their productivity would indicate. But when the economy gets good enough that their wages start rising, the Fed increases rates to stop it. This is why we can’t depend upon the Republicans’ big answer to save the poor: “Growth!” All the gains of growth go to the top. And that is something we have to fix in our regular political system.

Anniversary Post: George Metesky’s First Bomb

George MeteskyOn this day in 1940, George Metesky planted his first bomb in an office of Consolidated Edison. He was know as “the mad bomber.” Over the course of 16 years, he planted 33 bombs — 22 exploded. In total, 15 people were injured but none were killed. Generally, he placed warning calls to the facilities where he planted the bombs. But it did have a terrorizing effect on the people of New York City.

In the 1930s, he worked for Consolidated Edison. He was involved in an accident that made him disabled. After 26 weeks of sick pay, the company fired him. He screwed up and filed too late to get workers’ compensation. All of his appeals were denied. He developed a great hatred for the company.

His bombs were very simple: pipe bombs. The first two were duds. That may have been intentional. At the start of World War II, he sent the police a note saying that he would not plant any more bombs for the duration of the war because of his patriotic feelings. But that afterwards, he would bring Con Edison to justice for their “dastardly deeds.” He planted no more bombs until 1951. He was finally captured in 1957.

He was declared a paranoid schizophrenic and placed in the Matteawan Hospital for the Criminally Insane. But because of some legal technicalities, he was released in 1973. At that time, he told a reporter, “I wrote 900 letters to the Mayor, to the Police Commissioner, to the newspapers, and I never even got a penny postcard back. Then I went to the newspapers to try to buy advertising space, but all of them turned me down. I was compelled to bring my story to the public.”

He lived in peace for another 20 years — dying at the age of 90 in 1994.